We are three weeks shy of the anniversary of a famous Celtic triumph. On 7 November 2012, Barcelona – Messi, Iniesta, Xavi et al – were vanquished 2-1 in Glasgow’s east end. Celtic were marching towards the last 16 of the Champions League with Miku, a loanee striker from Getafe, plus a centre-back pairing of Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson. It was a special occasion that turned heads across Europe.
The intervening years have witnessed a cycle Ange Postecoglou must try to break. Including for the good of his own career. There has been the odd high point – successive Europa League wins against Lazio in 2019, for example – but Celtic’s dominance in Scotland has been tempered by also-ran status in Europe. Knockout defeats have come against AEK Athens, Ferencvaros, Malmo, Cluj, Maribor and Bodø/Glimt.
It would be unfair to place troubles of the past at Postecoglou’s door. His own record in European competition reads: played 17, won six, drawn two and lost nine. Celtic have scored 28 times in Europe on his watch while conceding 34. While the strength of Real Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen is a contextual factor, so, too, is the weakness of Jabonlec, who Celtic beat 7-2 on aggregate last season.
Postecoglou is due huge credit for re-establishing Celtic as the strongest force in Scotland but the ambitions of manager or club cannot end there. This is a business that recently reported operating expenses of £91.7m against revenue of £88.2m. Celtic can hardly plead poverty. Wild celebration greeted a stoppage-time winner at St Johnstone on Saturday; notched by a player bought for roughly the entire first-team wage budget of the opposition.
Celtic have suffered before through overemphasis on Scotland rather than the kind of football world they briefly sampled when Barça were seen off. Titles and trebles? Lapped up without cognisance of a bigger picture.
The visit of RB Leipzig to Celtic Park on Tuesday is therefore hugely significant. Celtic had opportunity to win the corresponding fixture in Germany last week before the lethal – and not uncharacteristic – concoction of missed chances and comedy defending was seized upon. Celtic should definitely have defeated Shakhtar Donetsk but did at least emerge with a score draw. Real Madrid swaggered to a 3-0 win in Glasgow but were rattled for a half when Celtic displayed the best version of themselves.
Postecoglou needs to use this week to kickstart not only his Champions League campaign. Since breezing past Rangers in early September, Celtic have slipped to defeat at St Mirren before unconvincing wins against Motherwell and St Johnstone. Yes, they remain top of the tree in Scotland and the clear favourites to retain the title, but there is a current sloppiness to their play.
Brendan Rodgers, successful and revered at Celtic – until he accepted the overtures of Leicester – was widely criticised for failure to implement a Plan B in European football. Celtic endured some especially harrowing nights, albeit against top-level teams, with him in charge. Postecoglou has to be mindful of falling into the same trap. The fatigue that hits his players midway through the second half of games is far more likely to be seized upon at this level.
The openness Celtic display can be riveting, but when forwards are profligate it creates stress for defenders. Celtic concede far too many European goals. Having rose petals thrown at feet in Scotland is one thing, but Postecoglou would raise his profile in loftier circles should he make Celtic anything close to a force in Europe once again. This shouldn’t be out of the question if the club have appropriate strategy.
The Australian’s future is relevant. At 57, after a somewhat itinerant career, this marks his first major role in Europe. Just as it would be bizarre to suggest the ambitions of Reo Hatate, Jota, Kyogo Furuhashi or Josip Juranovic end with the Scottish top flight, Postecoglou should have a broader plan. Not that he is likely to receive his current level of control elsewhere. Celtic still have no director of football, essentially because their manager does not want one. Try selling that to a major club in England or Spain.
Rodgers and Steven Gerrard were afforded straightforward switches from Glasgow to the Premier League because of existing reputation in England. Neil Lennon defeated Barça and ended up in Bolton. Alex McLeish departed Rangers in 2006 after a generally successful spell but found no takers south of the border. Earlier, Walter Smith’s best offer came from then-struggling Everton. While he is known to the City Football Group, having previously coached Yokahama Marinos, Postecoglou may need European scalps to boost his own standing before the inevitable point where he grows bored with Scottish football’s two-horse tedium.
Defeating Leipzig would boost brand Ange and create fresh respect for Celtic. The latter is well overdue.